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Carolyn Hax: Ultimatum fails to clean up potty mouth

Published July 13, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dear Carolyn • My boyfriend is sweet, kind and everyone I know adores him. However, it bothers me that he often uses profanity when we are arguing (sometimes directed at me). He always apologizes afterward for doing so, and has admitted he needs to change, but it always slips out during arguments. I have told him it is rude and something I will not stand for, but it continues to be a problem. Is this something that can change or is it just wishful thinking?

Curbing a Potty Mouth

Dear Curbing • So when his profanity is "sometimes directed at" you, is he saying "Bleep you" or "You're such a bleeping bleep"? Or is it, "I am so bleeping sick of having this bleeping argument"? I ask because the latter is just a potty mouth, but the former raises the specter of verbal abuse. Even without more information, I can say that you actually do "stand for" his profanity, because you're still with him and he's still doing it.

That's fine, of course, as long as that's what you want and as long as he's not being abusive — but it does expose the supposed hard line you're taking as so much hot air. This is true of anything: When you declare that you "will not stand for" something, then you need to be ready to leave the relationship the next time that behavior happens. If what you mean is that you'll give him time to work on this but you will ultimately leave if he doesn't change, then that's something else. It's also something you need to declare to yourself, primarily — not to him. If you say it to him, then it's an ultimatum.* If you say it to yourself, then it's a plan. That's why your first step must be for you to be clear with yourself where the line is between staying and going.

For example, as long as it passes the it's-not-abuse test, you can decide that his profanity actually isn't a breakup-worthy issue for you after all, and you can stop saying things like "I won't stand for that." Whether something "can change" or is "wishful thinking" is not universal or absolute. It's dependent entirely on the effort of the person doing the unwelcome thing — and on you, the one who's deciding whether to stick around for it.

Carolyn Hax's column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.